1th of April 2023
Cacao is the healthiest food on the planet. Yep, we said it. And unlike many other purported “superfoods,” there’s an abundance of proof to back up that admittedly audacious statement. Like any delicious gift from Mother Nature, cacao is best consumed on its own. This means you’ll experience the most life-giving, love-inducing, possibly even age-defying benefits with 100% cacao—the true “food of the gods.”
Below, we look into cacao’s most magical ingredients and its potential to boost your brain and heart health; improve your gut, skin, mood, and overall well-being; and even combat chronic diseases.
What’s in 100% Cacao?
There are over 300 nutrients and compounds in cacao, and while it’s tempting to expound on all of them, we’ll spare you the geekery and reserve this space for some of its key players. Here’s a brief breakdown of cacao’s rich and diverse nutritional profile:
Cacao is the richest source of theobromine on the planet and the inspiration for the name theobromine itself. This naturally occurring compound was first discovered in 1841 and given its name in honor of the cacao tree, coined Theobroma cacao, a term derived from Greek that translates as “food of the gods.”
A gentle stimulant, theobromine is closely related to caffeine, but it won’t give you the same jitters or inevitable energy crash. Theobromine can improve cognitive function, enhance performance, boost mood, and promote overall cardiovascular health. Read more about chocolate’s many other psychoactive compounds here.
Alongside theobromine, cacao contains caffeine, another stimulant in a class of alkaloids known as xanthines. A 2.5-tablespoon serving of 100% cacao powder provides you with about 50 mg of caffeine, or roughly half the amount of a cup of coffee. The most caffeinated cacao comes from countries in South America, including Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru.
Of course, caffeine has its many known pros and cons: the quick energy but sometimes quicker crash, and the increased mental functioning but subsequent withdrawal, to name a few. But when it comes to cacao, there may be a significant synergistic effect between theobromine, caffeine, and several other compounds in chocolate. This incomparable combo may enhance mood, cognition, and even the taste of chocolate itself. Read more about the links between chocolate, coffee, and caffeine here.
Cacao is also one of the richest sources of antioxidants on Earth. It’s packed with a wide range of polyphenols and flavanols and competes with superfood stars like goji berries, acai, and blueberries in its impressive antioxidant load. Antioxidants fight free radicals and oxidation in the body and offer an abundance of anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects. The antioxidants in cacao appear to be highly bioavailable, meaning our bodies absorb them incredibly well. Another positive of so many antioxidants: it makes for a highly stable product with a long shelf life.
The amount of antioxidants in raw cacao will vary significantly between batches, seasons, and growing regions. Research has also focused on whether aspects of the chocolate-making process (particularly fermentation and roasting) can dilute its antioxidant properties. That said, 100% cacao powder or cacao nibs will be quite the antioxidant powerhouse. Just avoid any Dutch-process cocoa, in which the cacao beans are washed in an alkaline solution of potassium carbonate to neutralize their acidity. This process significantly reduces the antioxidant count—up to nearly 80%, according to one study.
Cacao is a veritable vessel of essential micronutrients. Many of these support crucial body functions while offering powerful antioxidant properties, immune support, and protection against chronic diseases. Here’s a rough estimate of how much a one-ounce serving of cacao powder contains:
These numbers are based on average commercial cocoa powders. The mineral composition can also vary depending on the growing region and richness of the soil. It’s safe to assume that minimally processed cacao that’s been grown via sustainable practices will contain even more of these and other essential minerals.
Cacao is also a rather fiber-rich food. Dietary fiber promotes a healthy weight, blood sugar control, and gastrointestinal health. And some 95% of Americans don’t get enough of it. One ounce of cacao powder can contain around 9 grams of fiber or roughly 35% of your daily value. That’s about the same as a cup of boiled green peas. Which would you prefer?
Cacao even contains a significant amount of protein, some 5 grams or more per ounce. Some of the amino acids that make up this protein offer their own unique benefits, including tryptophan—a precursor to serotonin and beneficial for mood and sleep—which is most abundant in cacao beans from Ecuador.
10 Health Benefits of Cacao
The seemingly humble cacao bean is a nutritional powerhouse. And because it can be transformed into such a toothsome treasure, scientists seem rather motivated to study it. There’s already a ton of research on cacao’s many benefits—most of it incredibly promising.
Here’s a quick rundown of some notable findings.
1. Improves Cognitive Function
Regular cacao consumption can improve general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory, and reduce mental fatigue—not just right after you consume it, but even in the long term. Much of this is thanks to theobromine, caffeine, and all those flavonols. This study found it could even reduce some measures of age-related cognitive dysfunction.
2. Boosts the Immune System
While there have yet to be clinical trials to prove a direct link between cacao and immune function, we can deduce that—with its impressive amounts of flavonoids and minerals—consuming cacao may have beneficial effects on the immune system. It’s a good source of zinc, one of the most important nutrients for fighting off bacteria and viruses, and its polyphenols help feed good gut bacteria, which are also essential to keeping strong immunity. Heck, cacao may even be able to increase the production of your body’s white blood cells.
3. Supports the Cardiovascular System
Cacao’s dense concentration of theobromine and flavonols is largely responsible for its ability to decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. Minerals like potassium and zinc are also crucial in maintaining strong blood vessels and a healthy cardiovascular system. Cacao can lower high blood pressure, improve blood flow, prevent blood clots, raise HDL (the “good” cholesterol), and protect against oxidation of LDL. Eating dark chocolate more than five times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57% in this study.
4. Protects Against Chronic Diseases and Maybe Even Cancer
Cocoa polyphenols express antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic properties. Such health-promoting goodness goes a long way in protecting against oxidative stress and chronic inflammation—both major risk factors for cancer and other chronic diseases. Antioxidant effects can directly influence insulin resistance, helping to reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, while the anti-inflammatory potential of cocoa flavanols may offer protection against everything from coronary heart disease to chronic kidney disease.
5. Supports the Gut
The gut microbiome is so vital and complex it’s often referred to as “the second brain.” An increasing amount of research is discovering just how important the bacteria in your gut is when it comes to all aspects of your body and brain. A healthy gut can potentially prevent or improve health conditions, including mood disorders, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, arthritis, obesity, and cancer. Consuming cocoa flavanols can offer a prebiotic effect, stimulating the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
6. Boosts Mood
Simply put, chocolate can make you feel good. A wide array of cacao’s chemical compounds offer significant mood-enhancing properties, including theobromine, caffeine, phenylethylamine (otherwise known as the “love drug”), and some of the body’s own naturally occurring antidepressants like anandamide (whose name translates as “bliss”), tryptophan, and serotonin.
7. Improves Sleep Quality
How well you sleep often depends on how stressed you are. Cacao can be both energizing and calming, giving you the right balance of each, kind of like adaptogenic herbs. It can reduce blood pressure (insomniacs often have higher nighttime blood pressure) and mitigate the effects of anxiety (another thing keeping many of us awake at night) due to its magnesium concentration and trace amounts of tryptophan. And even though theobromine is a mild stimulant, it could still contribute to longer sleep.
8. Enhances Performance
The flavanols in cacao can influence the bioavailability of nitric oxide (NO), which often equates to enhanced physical performance. Indeed, this study found that after eating dark chocolate, cyclists used less oxygen and covered a longer distance compared to a cacao-less ride. Read more about the performance-enhancing properties of cacao here.
9. Protects Skin and Teeth
Among all these cacao benefits, it can even make you look good. Its flavanols help protect the skin from sun damage. This in turn can reduce wrinkles and even boost collagen, according to a study on mice. Meanwhile, theobromine’s antimicrobial effects have proven it can be more potent than fluoride in protecting your teeth from decay. Yes, cacao face masks are now indeed a thing, and no, we will not judge if you decide to start swishing and gargling with cacao, too.
10. Slows Down Aging
Could a deep vat of chocolate be the true fountain of youth? Perhaps. And if all the above health benefits won’t convince you of cacao’s age-defying power, perhaps a few more studies will. Along with keeping your skin fresh and firm, cacao can delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Another fascinating study found that one major flavonoid in cacao, called epicatechin, showed anti-aging effects in mice. After a regular diet that included epicatechin, the gene expression and protein levels of old mice resembled that of young mice, and their survival rate increased by a whopping 69%. Of course, human studies are necessary to verify this potential, but that’s reason enough for us to add a little more cacao to our daily routines.
How to Incorporate 100% Cacao Into Your Diet
Ok, now’s the fun part. Got a chocolate craving? Good. Here are some easy, tasty ways to incorporate 100% cacao into your diet to start enjoying all these cacao benefits and get you feeling smarter, younger, happier, and healthier:
- These Gluten-Free Delights—including a flourless chocolate cake, breakfast smoothie, truffles, and biscotti—are downright sinful.
- This Two-Step Healthy Chocolate Smoothie blends up cacao, chia, flax, maca, banana, strawberries, milk, kefir, and honey into pure decadence.
- Jerry’s Backwoods Cacao Brew Recipe is hot chocolate on overdrive. It's the ultimate energy drink—and so much more satisfying than a Red Bull.
- These Fun & Creative Cacao Powder Recipes equate to culinary gold in the form of a breakfast bowl, cookies, tarts, babka, and choux pastry.
- Cacao can be used in many more ways, as a coffee replacement or supplement, smoothie boost, keto add-on, decadent drink, and more.
Of course, not all cacao is created equally. The quality, taste, and nutrition of cacao can differ drastically depending on where it’s grown and how it’s processed. In general, the healthier the land and simpler the process, the better.
Our T.cacao 100% organic cacao powder is the purest form of cacao you can feed your body. And if you prefer something a little less intense, we invite you to try one of our dark chocolate bars made with just two ingredients: cacao and organic cane sugar.